A Beginner's Guide to Registering to Vote

By Rhiannon Winner on August 22, 2016

Whether it’s because you’re finally old enough to vote or because you weren’t interested before now, congrats on your decision to register vote! You’ve chosen a good time to get started, because you’ll need to allow some time before you can actually get out there and cast your vote. The procedures for registering vary by state, but there are multiple methods of registering available to you regardless of where you live. You can register through the mail, in person, or even online! This article will walk you through it all, step by step.


You cannot register to vote on November 7 and cast a ballot on November 8. Although the length of time varies by state, you must register a little in advance of the vote. Voter registration deadlines are usually during the month of October. Residents of Mississippi, South Carolina, and Washington D.C. be warned: you have the earliest deadline in the country. You must be registered by October 8 to be eligible to vote on November 8. For those living in other states, you have a bit more time, but to be safe, you should register as early as possible.

I’m not sure if I’m registered or not

Some states employ a “motor voter” policy, in which you’re automatically registered to vote when you obtain your driver’s license. If you’re uncertain whether or not your state has this policy, have moved recently, or are for any other reason unsure of your voting status, head on over to VOTE.ORG to see if you’re registered or not.

Do I have to pick a party when I register? 

No, you do not have to choose a political party. However, you may want to consider doing so if you plan on voting in the primaries in future elections. Some states will allow you to vote in whichever primary you prefer regardless of what party you are (or aren’t) registered with, but others will bar you entirely. The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a helpful state-by-state guide here.

What materials do I need to register?

This, again, varies by state. Generally, you’ll want to have a current form of photo identification (driver’s license, passport, military ID, et cetera) and proof of name and address (bank statements, utility bills, and the like). You will also need to have your social security number handy when applying.

Once the registration process is over, keep in mind that you may still need to bring an ID to vote. In some states, when you actually show up to vote, you need only give your name and address and you’ll be directed to a voting booth. In others, however, you may need to bring along a valid ID. To see what your state’s requirements are, check out Rock the Vote’s comprehensive list of voter ID requirements.

Just tell me what I need to do to actually register 

If you want to register by mail, head over to the Election Assistance Commission’s website. The form is offered in various languages, and state-by-state instructions are included. There are a lot of pages, but you need only mail in one page of the packet. Just send in the single application page and hang onto the instructions. Remember to send copies of the proof of identification the form asks for – don’t actually send in your driver’s license or anything. However, keep in mind that North Dakota, Wyoming, and New Hampshire will not accept this form.

If you want to register online, check out this map. Select your state of residence, and if you are eligible to register online, it will link you to the necessary form on your state’s election website. Currently 31 states and Washington D.C. offer online registration. A handful of other states have approved online voter registration, but have not yet set up the system. Make sure that your state has not just passed legislation to enact online voting, but has actually implemented it.

If you want to register in person, you can go pick up an application from your local voter registration office, the DMV, or a military recruitment office. When you’re done filling it out (you’re free to do it in person or take it home, usually) turn it back in by the date you must register by in your state.

Do I need to re-register if I move?

Yes, you must re-register if you have moved to a new county or state. You can check out your state’s guidelines on how to do that here.

How can I get an absentee ballot? 

If you won’t be able to get to the polls on November 8, you have the option of completing an absentee ballot. Most times, you’ll be expected to mail this in before everyone else votes. You can register for that by clicking this link. The deadline for when you must request the ballot varies by state, but it’s generally a good idea to register for the absentee ballot in early October.

What if I live overseas?

There are millions of eligible voters living overseas, so know that your vote is as important and likely to sway the election as anyone else’s. Check out this site to register to vote – they can tailor instructions specifically to your situation, regardless of how long you’re overseas. If you’re a member of the armed forces, you’ll want to fill out the form here. Select your home state on the map and you’ll be directed to the appropriate form.

If you have any more specific questions, Rock the Vote has a near-comprehensive list of common questions here. If you can’t find your answer there, feel free to call your local DMV or voter registration office. Good luck, and happy voting!

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